Another tragic case of a mother drowning her children, and herself, come out of New Jersey this week. A young black mother of four drove her minivan, with all four of her children, all under the age of 10, into the Hudson River, allegedly after finding out that her husband was having an affair. Her oldest child, a 10 year old boy, was able to push the button to open the windows and swim out. He says that his mother, before she drove into the river, came to the back of the car and told the young ones that if they were going to die, they were all going to die together. She posted on facebook about her plans, but new reports say that she changed her mind at the last minute and tried to reverse the car. The boy told his mother he was going to get help, and the last her heard from her was “Ok.”
While the case is most certainly a tragedy, much of the discussion surrounding the case has been exactly who the case is a tragedy for. It’s obviously a tragedy for the children, both the three that died and the one that survived. Those three lives lost are three young black lives that will never get the chance to experience living out all that life has to offer. For the child that survived, he will forever suffer the trauma of this event, forever remember his mother and his siblings in this way.
But is this a tragedy for the mother? Reading the comments from the online newspaper, the opinions are mixed, mixed over whether mourning for the mother is even proper. The two poles seem to be either a) “we don’t know what was going through her mind, so let’s reserve judgment” or b) “good mothers don’t murder their kids.” I don’t think either of these are accurate descriptions of the possibilities of what we can say about the circumstance of this mother.
Both statements imply that we can pass judgment, not simply in the legal sense, but in the moral sense. Legally, of course, we could pass judgment. There are legal standards for murder, standards by which we ascertain intent to kill, processes and procedures to ensure fair trials. But moral judgments? Those are based on all sorts of things, little of which do we agree on.
If she was having a psychotic break, and that was “what was going through her mind” is that a tragedy for her? For some folks, a mental illness would automatically disqualify her from “good mom” status, for people with mental illness should not have children. For other folk, “snapping” is akin to insanity, meaning she had little control over her own actions.
We all “snap” from time to time, not to the point of killing our children, of course, but to the point of losing control for split second and doing something that you wouldn’t otherwise do. Yet we don’t base the entirety of our character on those one occurrences, those one situations. We recognize them for what they are – lapses in judgment, bad decisions, sometimes truly fvcked-up decisions – but we don’t allow them to contaminate all of who we are.
Even when someone does something as horrible as this, I can’t bring myself to allow it to contaminate everything they are. And maybe it’s because I’ve been in that place, about to make a decision that was permanent and unalterable about taking my own life. And thankfully, I did have my wits about me to not contemplate taking my children with me, but to take my own life was still an obviously reckless and misguided and wrong and bad decision. And had I taken it, or attempted it (I got help before I took that step) I would hope that that moment did not subsume all there is to me. That that moment of weakness, of dispair, of truly being out of my mind did not become all that folks would remember about me. Even now, after being hospitalized and diagnosed, I hope that *it* is not all that people think when they think of me, that one bad thing I was going to do.
And so in this case, I wonder *why* people feel the need to pass a judgment at all. Why can’t we all just shake our heads at the sadness of the entire situation – four lives lost, lives that will not lived any longer, lives that were cut shorter than they should have been. Why can’t we mourn for them – all of them, the children, babies really, only 5, 2, and 11 months, and this young mother – as somebody’s child, somebody’s grandbaby, somebody’s niece, nephew, somebody’s loved one who is now gone. And why are we not more focused on what all the negative characterizations of this mother will have on the child who survived – a child that will forever live with the horrible trauma of his mother’s and sibling’s death?
Please: can our compassion for that child be greater than our need to judge the actions of the dead?